Historically, hazardous duty pay has been associated with dangerous military actions, usually in a foreign country, in times of war or peril. Certainly, we’re living in unprecedented times where history seems to be re-written daily, and the enemy now moves swiftly, not only abroad, but here at home in America.  As in any time of danger, there are individuals who put their own safety aside to help others. This is happening daily around the world, especially at the local government level, where first responders and essential employees are helping to protect the public during the COVID 19 pandemic. Many local governments may decide employees that are risking their safety to serve citizens should be rewarded financially in the form of hazardous duty pay. If a local government decides to provide some form of additional pay for these front-line employees—the policy for this pay needs to be carefully thought out and documented‑otherwise, the good deed could be the source of many troubles.

What is a hazard?

Defining an event as “hazardous,” which results in additional compensation can be a complicated decision. A “hazardous pay event” could be defined as anything not considered within a local government’s boundaries. A crisis for one local government could be considered a recurring event for another. For example—a hurricane in Florida is dangerous, but it occurs often enough for first responders to develop mitigating procedures to make it somewhat less dangerous than a hurricane striking the Virginia coast. A flood along the Mississippi river is potentially an annual event, whereas flooding in Nevada may be catastrophic. Local governments may analyze what is deemed hazardous based on their past ability to respond and training of front-line responders.

Who makes decisions?

After a “hazardous” event occurs in your area, there are still many factors to consider related to a local response. The announcement, method of response, and the potential use of employees and assets would need to be appropriately addressed related to a “hazard.” Leaders within your government would need to make rapid decisions and appropriate announcements to the citizenry. There would need to be a clear delineation of ultimate command. In any local government, a county commission chairperson, mayor, or school superintendent would usually make a final response decision and ongoing announcements—but a higher government may make that decision also, such as a governor or maybe even the President.  But, the response to a hazard would have significant input from your department heads, human resources, finance, and perhaps a personnel board. It should take a team effort to address the proper response to a hazardous event. Consider creating a policy that directs who will make final response decisions and how final commands will be implemented. Also, make certain your legal department and an employment attorney review the final policy to avoid any violations of Federal or State employment laws.

Who is eligible for hazardous duty pay?

In formulating your policy for hazardous duty pay—consideration may need to be given to different classes of employees. First responders such as police and fire may have a different compensation threshold than other employees. First responders’ regular pay and benefits may already anticipate some level of risk since danger may be part of their daily job requirements—so a higher threshold for hazardous duty pay may be formulated. Essential employees and non-essential employees drafted into risky duties caused by a hazard may need compensation adjustment based on proximity and frequency to the hazard. Moreover, even determining who is considered a first responder versus essential and non-essential employees would need further defining. Are first responders only “oath” based employees – those who have taken an oath to protect and serve?  Also, who is deemed essential and non-essential may change depending on the hazard.

When do employees receive hazardous duty pay?

When an event meets a pre-defined “hazardous” situation for your government, and a response has been formulated, a decision needs to be made as to when an employee actually receives additional compensation. It may be that your area meets a “hazard” event, but none of your employees were exposed to the risk presented by a hazard in a manner that merits additional compensation. Primarily, the following items could form a basis for policy development for hazardous duty pay:

  • Proximity to event
  • Frequency of exposure to the event

Physically, the closer an employee is to a dangerous event would obviously drive hazard and risk. The closer they are, the greater the harm, even if the exposure is brief. Frequency to an event would be another driver—they are exposed to the event many times, which increases risk. Once these concepts are applied to any dangerous situation, in the context of a pay increase for employees, a policy could be built around when an employee is compensated.

How are employees paid for hazardous duty?

Another hurdle to consider for hazardous duty pay relates to how an employee is paid. Many options exist, and a particular hazard may create different methods of hazardous duty pay. If an event is relatively short in duration—a lump sum bonus may be considered. Longer hazardous events may necessitate temporary pay premiums potentially coupled with step-based increases related to duration.  Retroactive pay may also be considered pending the timing and notification by other government agencies. One option may be additional benefits such as additional vacation days earned for hazardous duty. Consideration may also need to be given to consistency across departments, fairness to employees, equality in participation, and any premium pay that might exist prior to a hazard.

Do you have the resources to pay?

Analysis of the cost of hazardous duty pay is essential before making a commitment to employees.  Both expenses and revenues should be considered. An expense estimate may be a simple calculation if a lump sum method of premium pay is selected. Ongoing premium pay could be harder to estimate, particularly if step increases are also part of the pay package.  Additionally, lost revenue from a hazardous event would be factored into any funding calculation. Without the money flowing into your government, the outflows would be limited. Current cash resources would need to be evaluated as an option of funding. Also, consider any available Federal or State grants that would presumably be available during a hazardous event. Generally, disaster declaration from State and Federal governments pave the way for future grant availability. Additionally, don’t forget peripheral costs that may also tap resources such as quarantine housing, increased funding for homelessness, and any economic support for local businesses.

Avoiding Unnecessary Troubles

Creating and updating a hazardous duty pay policy prevents questions and confusion at a time when a crisis demands the attention of leadership in other critical areas. Your local government leaders need to focus on eliminating an actual crisis and not deal with questions regarding compensation for those employees working hard during the upheaval. Developing a solid policy around hazardous duty pay is one step towards preventing further problems at the worst possible time.

For more information regarding hazardous duty pay and the decision-making process that comes along with it, reach out to your local CRI advisor.